The Toronto Maple Leafs will host the winless Ottawa Senators tonight. At stake for the Senators is the quest for their first win. At stake for the Maple Leafs is their second straight win and a chance for a bit of redemption.
Say what you like – as in, it was only the first game of the season; however, the loss to the Montreal Canadiens Wednesday night made me blink. I expected more from the team.
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I expected the team to act as an experienced unit that wouldn’t hiccup in their first game. I expected Matt Murray not to look like he was still struggling; and, I expected the team’s defence to work in sync with their goalie to carry the win.
None of this happened. The Maple Leafs did bounce back to defeat a tough Washington Capitals team by a 3-2 score the next night, but it wasn’t easy. Maybe not being easy is good.
We’ll see what team shows up tonight. That makes game three of the season a bit of a test. I don’t know what to expect now. I do expect the Senators to work hard, but how will the Maple Leafs’ react? For me, that’s still the question.
Item One: Maple Leafs’ Head Coach Took the Game One Loss Personally
When, as a team, the Maple Leafs didn’t play “their game,” not only was it obvious that head coach Sheldon Keefe was upset about the performance but you could tell he took it personally.
His displeasure was about the lost opportunity to win the first game of the season, but also about the fact that his expectations for the team were unrealized. He’s been working to build a culture and that culture didn’t show up.
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Keefe noted that “We have high expectations as a team, not just in terms of the results that we want to get as we go through this journey but just how we conduct ourselves and how we perform.”
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He wasn’t about to brush it aside and noted “We had a frank discussion (Thursday) morning, and I thought the guys responded really well.” One wonders what his definition of “frank discussion” might be. Whatever the team played better.
Item Two: John Tavares Bumping Into Career Milestones
One Maple Leafs’ player who’s shown up for both games has been John Tavares. For the old man that fans seem to think Tavares has become, he’s looked downright spry. He had some glide to his stride during the Capitals game and now has three points for the season thus far, with a goal on Thursday and two assists on Wednesday.
All offseason, I’ve been hearing the prognosis that Tavares is on a decline. I know from my reading that he was working on his speed during the offseason, but that’s also true of 18-year-old prospect Fraser Minten.
Perhaps Tavares’ decline won’t start this season after all. With his three points this season, he’s now only two points from scoring 900 points. He’s been in the NHL for 14 seasons. It would be nice for him to reach that mark in tonight’s game.
Item Three: The Maple Leafs Bottom Six Will Help in Load Management
So far, the Maple Leafs’ fourth line has not found its mojo yet; however, I expect that’s coming soon. What I do know is that this line is much speedier than other fourth lines I’ve seen in the five seasons I’ve covered the team.
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Of all the changes on the team this season, the fourth line of Zach Aston-Reese, David Kampf, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel is the line I’m watching with the greatest sense of positive anticipation. In truth, the line hasn’t started as quickly as I thought it would. They’ve done what they’ve been asked, but the personality I expected hasn’t yet materialized.
This line gets tons of defensive-zone starts, and they’ll be tasked with solving problems in front of their own goalie. So far, we’ve seen them skate fast, work hard, and hit people. When the line finds its identity, I totally expect them to help with the team’s load management.
By the end of the season, I expect them to get more ice time than most NHL fourth lines – perhaps up to 14 minutes a game. I also expect that line to grab minutes from the top lines – in a good way. Much of that depends upon the score and circumstances of a game. But not having Mitch Marner play 23 minutes a game has to be good.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
I have a lot of reasons for rooting for Denis Malgin. One of them is that he’s a joy to watch skating. He’s so fast and quick. He darts in and out of spots, stops and starts quickly, jumps into plays, and anticipates.
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He really is fast on his blades. Now if he can continue to score to go along with his skating skill. So far, the second line has been at least tied for the team’s best line. Can they keep it up?